Each person was instructed to grab a small bucket before entering into the temple; It didn’t take long to figure out what these buckets were for. If the darkness of the room was not unnerving enough, the sounds of moaning, heaving, and intense vomiting certainly were.
My body convulses repeatedly, with eyes close, I still ‘see’ a cacophony of light beaming horizontally back and forth. I grab my bucket just in time, feeling as though my insides are about to be forced out, I only manage to dry heave with an intensity as though I’m about to explode.
It’s pitch black—22 individuals from all over the world travel to the ancient Sacred Valley, just outside of Cusco, Peru to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony. I meet most of the participants before the ceremony begins. The word “consciousness” is thrown about, many are seeking this deeper connection and understanding with themselves, their mind, and the ever-elusive human consciousness; something spirituality and science both have trouble grasping.
Inside a circular temple, the floor is adorned with the “flower of life,” an ancient geometrical pattern that embodies spirituality and mathematics. One by one, each individual kneels down before the shaman as he says a blessing. The light brown brew has a slightly bitter taste and an earthy aroma.
It takes about half an hour for the ayahuasca to take effect. What follows is perhaps one of the most frightening experiences—the candles are put out, apart from the dull moonlight that barely passes through the curtains, you’re staring into absolutely darkness. The silence is broken by the chanting and traditional music from the shaman, he makes bird noises while fanning some dried leaves to a musical beat. The music is suddenly drowned out by the sounds of ‘purging.’ Each person was instructed to grab a small bucket before entering into the temple; It didn’t take long to figure out what these buckets were for. If the darkness of the room was not unnerving enough, the sounds of moaning, heaving, and intense vomiting certainly were.
While each individual’s experience was subjective, a common theme in every story was coming face to face with their own demons—negative experiences not properly dealt with begin to resurface. Some experienced intense shivering and convulsing; the brutal inner journey swings from one end of the spectrum to another, many report seeing their future path laid out before them before being overcome with a peaceful bliss with laughter and smiles.
A team of neuroscientists, led by Dr. Draulio de Araujo provide an intriguing angle in understanding some of Ayahuasca’s effects. Scanning the brains of ten frequent Ayahuasca users after consuming the tea showed increased activity in the Parahippocampal Gyrus (cortical areas BA 30 and BA 37), responsible for the retrieval of autobiographical memories, and the Frontopolar Prefrontal Cortex (BA 10), responsible for working memory and imagining future events.
So, the ability to ‘see’ into your future can be attributed to the activation of the brain’s ability to form vivid imaginations. Similar to the conscious practice of writing down your goals and visualising the outcome, which has been shown to bring about significant results. You are laying out hypothetical but practical steps to achieve a goal.
What is mysterious and unexplainable is the ‘conscious,’ while unconscious, process of uncovering suppressed memories of your past. And then, the ‘guided’ accessing of internal sources and the choice of imagery for a possible future reality. In the midst of an anaesthetic experience, there is still an awareness present.
The study brings into the forefront the hot debate in understanding the brain and the mind/consciousness/awareness. Where does one end and the other begin? As Ayahuasca accesses these memory centres of the brain, where does the vivd awareness of the process reside?
Ever since the Scientific Revolution from the mid 1500’s onward, science and spirituality have been bitter enemies. More recently, it seems an unthinkable romance may blossom—for as much clarity science and empiricism has been able to determine, there’s been an equal arrival at the mystery of human consciousness. The result is an eruption of dialogue between philosophers and neuroscientists, even in agreement with some theories.
While the respective theories and positions are well beyond the scope of this article, it is indeed an exciting cultural and intellectual revolution as scientific research begins to intermingle with ancient practices such as Ayahuasca. Similar studies with fascinating results have been conducted with other natural hallucinogenics—psilocybin mushrooms, salvia, and peyote.
As fascinating as modern research has been in uncovering the neurological activity of Ayahuasca, it’s baffling to consider how ancient tribes understood the synergy necessary among the plants used in Ayahuasca brews to create such a psychedelic-cognitive experience. Perhaps the final word will elude both the scientist and the shaman.
de Araujo, D. B., et al. (2011). Seeing With the Eyes Shut: Neural Basis of Enhanced Imagery Following Ayahuasca Ingestion. Human Brain Mapping, DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21381